How Ivan Milat's Surviving Victim Helped Put Him Behind Bars

Evil backpacker killer Ivan Milat died behind bars thanks to one brave tourist who survived an encounter with the madman.

Milat was imprisoned and given seven life sentences for the murder of hitchhiking travellers he picked up in his car. Their bodies were found in NSW's Belanglo State Forest in the early 90s.

The killer's health deteriorated rapidly in recent months, as he battled stomach and oesophagal cancer. He was moved from Goulburn's Supermax jail, where he has resided since his conviction in 1996, to Sydney's Long Bay jail in May as his condition worsened.

He was moved again to hospital on October 16, and on October 27, he died in Long Bay's hospital wing.

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Milat was marked never to be released for his infamous crimes, and it was due to the bravery of one of his victims -- British backpacker Paul Onions -- that he was jailed and stopped from continuing his murderous rampage.

British backpacker Paul Onions, in a 60 Minutes interview. Image: 60 Minutes

Onions' was actually one of Milat's first victims.

In 1990, Onions was hitchhiking from Sydney to Mildura, and bumped into a man at a shop near Mittagong in the NSW southern highlands. The stranger, noticing his backpack, asked if he needed a lift.

Onions couldn't have predicted that the friendly Aussie, who introduced himself as 'Bill', would soon be known to millions worldwide as Ivan Milat, the backpacker killer -- so notorious that simply the mention of his mere surname would send a chill down the spines of many.

"He looked a bit like Dennis Lillee to me," Onions told 60 Minutes of his first impressions of Milat.

Ivan Milat is serving seven life sentences for murder. Image: AAP

Onions and Milat drove down the lonely highway but the passenger soon got a bad feeling. He said Milat began making "offensive" racist comments.

"I was so happy to get the ride, then all of a sudden I thought 'oh no'," Onions said.

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Milat soon began looking in his mirror and slowing the car down, then pulled the vehicle over on the side of the road. He said he was going to find some music cassettes to play. The car was approaching the Belanglo state forest.

"There's two sides to your brain, there's the calm side saying 'you should be happy, this guy's giving you a lift, what are you worried about?' Then there's the other side saying 'hold on, something doesn't feel right here'," Onions said.

Belanglo state forest. Image: Google Maps

Suddenly, Milat produced a gun and length of rope, telling Onions "this is a robbery". Onions, panicking, managed to escape the car and runoff.

"I just thought, ‘This is it, run or die’, so I undid my seatbelt and jumped straight out of the vehicle and ran," Onions said in 2010.

Milat fired a shot as the backpacker sprinted across the road for safety, trying to flag down a passing vehicle. The men wrestled in the middle of the road, and Onions managed to untangle himself again and attempt to stop another car.

"It just seemed I'd rather stop a car and get killed, than get back in that vehicle and face the end that way," Onions told 60 Minutes.

Milat introduced himself as 'Bill' to some victims. Image: AAP

Joanne Berry, a grandmother driving past, was the next car on the road. She stopped, picked Onions up, and sped off.

Onions made a report to the local police, but they didn't do much, taking his information and giving him money for a ride to the British embassy.

Five of Milat's seven victims were killed after Onions reported his terrifying experience.

It would soon be revealed that Milat had killed his first two victims just weeks earlier.

It wasn't until 1994, when police -- casting the net wide for leads in the investigation of a mounting pile of bodies in the Belanglo forest -- stumbled upon the report Onions made.

The man, having returned to England in June 1990, had called a police hotline in November 1993 which had been set up to gather tips about the seven backpacker deaths. He called just days after Berry had given her own report to the hotline, recounting her experience of picking up a backpacker pursued by a man with a gun.

Onions recounted his experience with 'Bill', and the descriptions he gave matched Milat, who was a person of interest in the investigation by then. However, detectives could not find his initial police report, and only three months later did they track it down.

Onions is escorted into court during Milat's trial in 1996. Image: AAP

Onions was brought back to Australia in May 1994, identifying Milat as the 'Bill' he met several years prior. It was one of the last pieces of the puzzle that police needed to move in on the killer, surrounding his home and arresting him just two weeks after Onions fingered him as the man who picked him up.

Until then, Onions had not told his family the full extent of his experience in Australia, saying only that he had been the target of an attempted robbery. Giving evidence at Milat's trial, Onions revealed how close he came to being counted among the other Belanglo victims.

Following a lengthy trial, Milat was found guilty in July 1996 and sentenced to life for each of the seven murders, as well as six years jail for the abduction of Onions. The survivor was offered a $200,000 reward for his part in bringing Milat to justice, but said he turned it down, returning the cheque to the Australian High Commission in London.

Milat, in 1997 in the back of a police car, attending a court hearing in Sydney. Image: AAP

He told the Herald Sun in 2010 that he viewed the reward as "hollow money", saying it would "never bring me joy". He has since become an accomplished sailor, being part of the winning team of a round the world yacht race in 2008.

"The reward I've got is I've got my life... I'm happy with that, really," he told 60 Minutes.